What personal responsibility means to a physician

She was sick.  Not sick like a high fever, body aches and a runny nose.  Sick like she had spent the last half a decade in nursing homes as most of her internal organs failed.  There was oxygen, and dialysis, and a colostomy.  She propelled herself vigorously through the crowded halls in the custodial wing of the nursing home, her wheelchair a natural extension of her body thoroughly unhampered by bilateral leg amputations.

She was sick, but she was thriving.  Every hospitalization, every setback, met with a perseverance and a stoicism of body that was nothing less than magical.  The fairy dust unfortunately spread no further than the entrance to her semiprivate room.  The rest of my patients didn’t always pull through so well.

So when the biopsy came back cancer, there was little hesitation when she decided on having the surgery.  There were risks, I reminded her.  The chance of sudden death on the operating table was nothing to scoff at.  But I had no reason not to clear her.  The cardiologist agreed.  After much haggling and arranging, a surgery date was set.  A date that fell smack in the middle of my only planned vacation for the whole year.  Seven measly days off.

The surgeon was busy and couldn’t rearrange his schedule.  I visited her early morning before leaving town.  She opened her eyes sleepily. You are going to take care of me in the hospital, right?  She of course knew that was impossible, but asked to be certain.  I assured her that the hospitalist group was excellent and would be attentive.

I left town.

Seven days later I returned to find her transferred to a distant hospital.  A few phone calls later my fears were confirmed.  She had a cardiac arrest a day after surgery.  She died.

It is hard to explain to the laymen what personal responsibility means to a physician.  Every death, every poor outcome is studied painstakingly.  A single question pervades this endless search: “What could I have done differently?”  It’s not some sadistic game we play to torture ourselves.  It’s more of a ritual.  A safeguard.  The study of medicine is significantly complex, and the foibles of human ability are delicate.  In a world where perfection is unattainable and the stakes are absolute, the only path to sanity is an overwhelming obsession with detail.  We swear to never make the same mistake twice.

For the most part this works.  I never forget to check the EKG of the demented delirious patient in the ER because of the acute myocardial infarction I missed in medical school.

Now, everyone would agree that even doctors have a right to a few days off now and then.  But it’s often difficult to turn the demon off.  This obsession with taking responsibility for my patients’ well-being defies logic.  And I cling to it.  Every day, every moment, with every ounce of strength and might that I can muster.

Because without it, I fear, I will be more likely to become an agent of harm.   And this profession that has flowered in the bosom of my identity will devolve into complete chaos.

Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In My Humble Opinion.

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